RI Lawmaker Wants To Require Legislative Approval On Commerce Corp. Grants Above $5 Million

May 9, 2018

Giarrusso speaking on the House floor.
Credit Ian Donnis/File Photo / RIPR

A Rhode Island lawmaker believes the state economic development agency should have to win legislative approval to pass out grants or loans of more than $5 million.

State Rep. Anthony Giarrusso (R-East Greenwich) said his bill is a way to enhance checks and balances within state government -- even if champions of the Commerce Corporation say it's incentives are bringing new jobs to Rhode Island.

"I’m sure that’s what they would say and it could 100 percent correct," Giarrusso said ahead of a House Finance Committee hearing on his bill Wednesday, "but it’s still – that’s a lot of money and that’s our money. It’s your money, it’s my money, we all pay taxes. I just think it’s good government and a little bit more oversight I think would be a good thing."

Commerce incentives have emerged as an issue in the race for governor.

Republican candidate Allan Fung has said the administration of Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo has awarded too many incentives. Raimondo has said the incentives have helped put Rhode Island on the map as an increasingly desirable place to do business, attracting such companies as GE Digital, Virgin Pulse, and Infosys, among other initiatives.

Commerce spokesman Matt Sheaff defended the agency's efforts.

"We’ve been before General Assembly committees several times this session," Sheaff said. "In each instance, we’ve discussed how our substantial existing reporting requirements are promoting accountability and transparency. We’ve also testified to the success of our economic development programs to date and the need for continuing them." 

Giarrusso's bill is just one of a handful of efforts by Republicans to impose new restrictions on the Commerce Corp.

Minority Whip Blake Filippi (R-New Shoreham) has a bill that would require Commerce to make quarterly reports to lawmakers.

And Rep. Ken Mendonca (R-Portsmouth) wants to prevent the use of RebuidRI credits as part of a PawSox stadium development.

Giarrusso, meanwhile, concedes that his proposed cap on Commerce grants has little likelihood of becoming law.

This is the second year the East Greenwich Republican has proposed the bill. He said it's telling that no one from Commerce came to oppose it during a committee hearing last year. "In other words, you don't need to know any more than that, that they know there's no way it's going to pass," Giarrusso said.